Defensible Link Building in a Post-Penguin World

March 14 by Kevin Gibbons
This article is primarily useful if a fairmarketing client had been hit by the Google Penguin update.

Are Panda and Penguin Related?

Looking back at Google’s algorithm updates over the last 12 months, I think we’re seeing a very similar trend:

  1. Panda = penalising websites with thin or weak content
  2. Penguin = penalising sites which have links from thin or weak content

When you think about Penguin and Panda updates in this way — in combination with the huge range of brand and social signals that Google are getting much better at reading and bringing into their algorithm — it becomes clear that human engagement and activity is starting to have a much greater impact on search results.

For example, here is an advert I saw in the London underground recently:

In my opinion, this type of advertising is genius. Firstly, it’s getting people to find out for themselves about the product from existing customers using third-party endorsements for honest reviews and showing that they are putting their money where their mouth is.

And secondly, Sonos are sending Google one the best messages you can: people are “talking” about their brand. We all know Google loves brands and they’re getting much better at reading the signs. So whether it’s branded anchor text or brand queries, Google knows there’s a popular brand behind this traffic increase, and maybe that brand deserves a bit more attention in the search engine result pages (SERPs) as a result.

That to me is the biggest shift — it’s now much more about building high quality links as a by-product of great content. Look at page authority in many ways, more than you would domain. If you have an active audience there, it’s relevant to readers or users; if no one reads it, that means no one cares – why should Google?

So how do you build a link profile that can compete at the very top of your market sector?

Think Ahead: 13 Steps to Building a Market Leading Link Strategy

I’ve broken down the process we take when looking at link modelling across our clients sites into 13 key steps. This doesn’t only apply to sites which have been hit by Penguin, we do this for everyone to ensure they are on the right track — turning your link profile into a goldmine and not a ticking time-bomb!

1) Change your mindset on metrics of link or site quality

Firstly, stop thinking like a link builder and start thinking like a Google engineer or a customer instead. Ask yourself this question:

Does my link provide value to the end user?

Good link building should be a natural by-product of great content. This means you need to think firstly about providing value to the end user, as opposed to what would Google think.

Google hates old-school link building, so if you’re thinking about them first, you’re still not really getting away from the problem.

Think about the important link metrics. That means forgetting about the search engine optimization (SEO) metrics we are so used to for now — such as PageRank or Domain Authority — and start considering what really matters:

  1. Traffic potential a link can send.
  2. RSS subscribers of target audience.
  3. Bounce rate of your content.
  4. Average number of social shares or comments your blog generates per post.
  5. Would the spam team like this link? Does it make Google look bad?

There’s often a re-education process involved in getting these metrics across to your client or boss, but it’s more important than ever that you focus on building the right links. In order to do this, you need to shift your mindset.

2) Identify if and when you’ve been hit by a penalty

If you think you’ve been hit by Penguin, the first thing you should do is to check Google Webmaster Tools for messages from Google to confirm if your suspicions are correct.

Following this, take a look at Google’s algorithm change history to figure out if a drop (or hopefully increase!) in traffic coincides with a Google algorithm update.

If you’ve been hit by Panda, I would recommend going back and analysing your content performance ratio as the first step. Figure out how much content you have indexed vs. pages which are generating search traffic.

If you’ve been hit by a Google Penguin penalty, use tools like to dig deeper and highlight what Google updates were rolled out at the time as a comparsion overlay against your organic traffic in Google Analyitcs; then continue working through the next stages of this post.

3) Download all of your links

Take an Excel dump of all of your links, I would suggest using Majestic for this. For example, we decided to analyse the online dating market and here’s what the profile looks like for the number-one site in the sector,

4) Analyse your anchor text distribution (ATD%)

One of the biggest warning signs of a site that has been hit by Penguin is unnatural anchor text. What stands out the most to Google is a high percentage of anchor text using key “money terms.” People just don’t link like that, so a strong backlink profile needs to have a natural mix of anchor text across branded and non-branded terms.

If you’ve received a message from Google Webmaster Tools saying that your site has been penalised, there’s a good chance it’s a manual penalty and it’s phrase specific (as opposed to Panda, where your whole site’s content has been devalued).

It’s often a long way back from here, so you want to make sure you’re doing things the right way so you can get this lifted as soon as possible. But that doesn’t mean you should rush into removing or disavowing links or submitting reconsideration requests.

Our first step would be to analyse the anchor text distribution for the site, pinpointing the phrase(s) which have experienced a drop. Here’s the ATD% for as an example:

This shows a score of 0.061% for the keyword “online dating,” which is very healthy. We’ve found that anything between 0.05% and 0.1% is often the sweet-spot for sites with strong profiles. However, don’t just take our word for it, results vary a lot based on the market so make sure you do your research.

5) Dig Deeper Using SEO Tools for Excel

Using SEOTools for Excel allows you to use Regular Expressions in Excel. The idea behind using this tool would mean greater efficiency in helping you to better establish:

  1. Branded vs. non branded anchor text distribution
  2. Related keyword inclusion of keyword anchor text distribution

(For those that are not familiar with Regex, I would recommend reading these posts by Annie Cushing on regular expressions.)

This can help you quickly distinguish whether the keywords in the columns are branded or non-branded. For example, wouldn’t be too difficult a term to comprehend without filtering out the branded anchor texts. However, for a site like Plenty of Fish, there would be a range of alternate brand expressions such as:

  • pof
  • plentyoffish
  • plenty of fish

With SEOTools, we can use the Regular Expressions to help us provide a formula of true or false:

By filtering out the brand related anchor text in the columns, you are able to effectively (and quickly) analyse and compare the anchor text distribution compared to that of your competitors:

Furthermore, anchor text can then be filtered to show key terms related to the anchor text.

From here, you can then start to build a much clearer picture of what the marketplace looks like and what the profiles of leading sites look like.

6) Analyse link volume vs. referring traffic

As you would analyse site indexing vs. traffic to pages, you’ll want to compare the volume of links vs. the number of links sending referring traffic.

In my opinion, one of the the most significant changes over the last 6-12 months is that Google has become much better at reading human engagement and audience signals behind content.

This means that Google is far more likely to pick up on any links they consider to have been built solely for SEO purposes and attribute more attention to content with high levels of human activity. Mashable, for example, is normally a good example of this, as they generate a large volume of social shares and comments for most published stories:

Again, forget about SEO for now and start thinking about what is most important: a link’s ability to drive traffic from a targeted audience. If a link is a by-product of great content, it has much more chance of being clicked by users, and as a result, valued by Google.

Analyse how much traffic is being sent from your links. For now, pretend that Google doesn’t exist and you’re building links like you’re back in 1997 — to generate traffic, leads, and sales. In doing this, it makes sense that you’d want to keep the ratio of link volume vs. links sending traffic high. If Google values brands as highly as we think – surely they’d do the same?

7) Analyse topical relevancy of links

Sometimes it can be too easy with Penguin updates to assume that the penalty is anchor-text related. Most reports are of over-anchor text optimization, but I wouldn’t rule out other reasons and signs of unnatural links being hit too.

Beyond anchor text, another obvious sign that a link perhaps isn’t natural, is if it’s located on a completely unrelated site. That doesn’t mean for sure that it’s unnatural, but if a perfume site, for example, had a large percentage of ForEx links, it’s likely to stand out as unnatural.

We analyse the topical relevancy of links by assigning them each an ODP (Open Directory Project/DMOZ) category:

This way we can spot common trends across the market and if something looks like it shouldn’t be there, it probably shouldn’t. And if we can find it, I’m pretty sure Google can too.

8) Compare it against your competitors

Every market sector is different, so analyse your competitors and find out what a number one ranking site profile within your industry looks like. Hopefully it’s your own, but if it’s not, that’s what you want to replicate:

We’ve used our internal tools to compare all of the above stats — find out the average anchor text distribution (ATD) scores for your competitors vs. your own site.

9) Find out what a Number One site profile looks like

From your analysis, you should now have a clearer idea of what a number one site in your industry looks like. That’s your target — you want to be there. Additionally, there’s a lot you can learn about around why and how the top sites made it there.

Use tools like Link Detective to find out what types of links competitors have and start to build an action plan on how you can start to model your own link profile in a similar way.

Apply your own SEO knowledge and common sense here. You don’t want to replicate a bad domain’s link profile which is just about to get hit by the latest roll-out of Penguin. But generally, molding into a profile that fits with the market leaders is a good start.

10) Consider removing/disavowing links which don’t match your target audience

My first piece of advice here would be to use this with caution. You need to have done your research and really know what you are looking for before you start removing links.

The decision also depends on many factors, such as:

  1. Your link profile
  2. The market-leaders profiles
  3. If you’ve been hit by a Penguin-related penalty

However, if you are in a position where you need to take action in order to clean-up your profile, I would recommend prioritising the high ATD% links you’ve highlighted during analysis, alongside the off-topic links which you consider to have been built for SEO purposes.

You can then begin to look for and remove these links from your profile. Personally, I would only consider using the Disavow Tool once all else has failed — if you can remove a link manually, remove it. If you can’t, that’s what the disavow tool is there for — but again, use with caution!

11) If hit by a manual penalty, file a re-inclusion request

Once you’ve been hit by a manual penalty, just fixing the issues is often not enough – you’re likely to need to submit a Google re-inclusion request to get the issue fully resolved.

This means you’ll need to identify why you’ve been hit initially. Google’s guidelines are pretty vague at the moment, but they will be improving this by providing specific examples of suspect links. It’s important that you document everything so you can show a record of any links you’ve removed and disclose the links you’ve paid for or think Google may be holding against you.

Once the manual penalty is applied, it’s rarely a quick fix to get this lifted, so you need to be as clear as possible and accept that it takes time and patience. If you’ve only just removed links, rather than assuming Google will manually check these for you, try waiting until they have been cached instead.

You may not get there the first time either. If it was easy to get a penalty lifted, that would encourage people to push their luck again next time; Google have purposely made the process tough. But once you’re out of Penguin, you’ll start to see rankings gradually starting to return.

We’ve found that the penalty is commonly phrase-specific (especially if anchor text related). Interestingly, once you remove links and are re-included, rankings often return back to a very similar level to where they were listed pre-penalty. This suggests that those links were having no real impact in the first place, but the penalty was more of a deterrent to prevent future link building activities of this nature.

This is very clever in my opinion. Previously, these type of links had no impact, which meant SEOs could build as many links as possible, in volume — they would either work or not, so the net result was usually an increase in rankings. It no longer works that way and Google has made this a far riskier strategy by better identifying paid or manipulated links and penalising sites for this activity.

This also makes Google’s job much easier, because they can cut down this activity by increasing the risk involved. So bear this in mind when submitting your re-inclusion request, Google wants to see that you understand what you’ve done wrong, you’ve made the effort to fix it, and that you won’t be doing it again.

12) Create a scalable content marketing strategy

Your main focus should be on creating an online buzz and building a natural link profile which reflects this. By focusing on high-quality content production and outreach, you can start strengthening your brand’s reputation and audience — and with that, comes links.

Look at the different types of content you can build into your strategy, for example:

  • Infographics
  • In-Depth Articles/Blog Posts
  • Videos
  • Kinetic Typography
  • Interactive Infographics
  • HTML5 content
  • Quizzes
  • Microsites/Communities
  • Running Webinars/Events
  • etc.

I spoke about this in more detail at SES London, it’s all about being awesome!

It doesn’t necessarily have to be harder either — just focus that effort you used to spend on creating 100 blog posts towards creating one outstanding content initiative instead.

That’s a much more interesting campaign for your team to work on internally. They can now focus on something they are really passionate about and then reap the rewards by naturally acquiring high-quality, targeted links that can build long-term and sustainable results.

13) Focus on audience & topical relevancy

Once you’ve built your content strategy into an editorial calendar, you’re almost good to go.

But before you start, if you think of Penguin as penalising links from weak and thin content, then it’s vitally important to consider the content placements you’re targeting in terms of audience and relevancy, as opposed to just looking at the strength of a site or domain.

Make sure that when your content is published, it’s generating human engagement and activity in the form of comments, social signals (shares, likes, G+’s, retweets) and natural links — the type of signals that only come from great content. From a natural link acquisition perspective, you want to be generating links which generate their own links and co-citations.

The example above shows that if you publish content on a publication URL, this should naturally start to generate links back to a) itself and b) the original source (your site). This is what naturally happens when you publish content on an actively engaged and relevant audience.

Without this, it’s a sign that your content isn’t highly valued by users — in which case, why should Google value it?

Key Takeaways

The main learnings I’ve taken away from this are that you should:

  • Identity (and consider removing) links which have no value to users.
  • Try to model the link profiles of the top sites within your sector.
  • Create a scalable content marketing strategy to focus on audience and human engagement.

This is how we analyse Google Penguin updates and link profiles – it would be great to hear how you have approached this in the comments below.

Fair Marketing